For the 15th year, Savannah's Davenport House Museum is presenting an exciting living history program about the yellow fever outbreak of 1820.
“This is the one we always come back to because it’s evocative, it’s Savannah, and it’s popular,” says Jamie Credle, museum director. She adds that like the Davenport's Christmas show, "There are just some things we always have to do.”
The program focuses on the days between May 1819 and September 1820, when a series of crises in Savannah, and the world, culminated in over half of the population evacuating the city, leaving behind many free and enslaved African-Americans, as well as poor people of all races, to succumb to the yellow fever outbreak. Over 600 people died.
“May was one of the most joyous times in our history, immediately succeeded by a worldwide financial panic,” explains Raleigh Marcell, one of the creators and principal performers of the program. “Then in January of 1820, a terrible fire destroyed most of the city. One of the newspaper editors finally calls Savannah quits and issues a curse on the city... and then yellow fever began in March of that year.”
“Many of the topics are really contemporary because with the [financial] panic there is a discussion about tariffs and free trade, so cycles of history continue,” adds Credle.
As visitors tour the house, they will meet several characters in historically accurate period costumes who act out various experiences from the outbreak. Each room represents a different part of the city. For example, one room will represent Washington Ward, one of the poorest areas of the city.
Credle portrays the real-life Miss Mary Lavender, one of the nation’s first woman doctors, as she administers medical aid to a sick young girl. “I do the traditional method of curing somebody,” explains Credle. “Puking, purging, blistering and bleeding.”
Like Miss Lavender, many of the characters, and even their lines, are drawn from actual historical documents.
Another room presents a doctor demonstrating his newly devised methods of treatment for yellow fever. “Roots and bark and compresses and non-invasive things that didn’t do any less or any more than the other methods,” says Marcell.
One of the highlights of the program is a performance by Jamal Toure, a professor at Savannah State University and expert in African and Gullah history. Toure vividly portrays Mingo Bwa, a free African-American who explains what life in Yamacraw was like for the Africans that lived there and what potions and charms he used to heal them. The transportive performance takes place in the garret room of the attic, which is rarely seen by the public.
The program ends on a delightfully morbid note as visitors draw a piece of paper out of a basket to see what their fate from visiting Savannah is. “During that epidemic, one out of every five people died, so usually one of five in the group didn’t make it,” says Marcell.
Because the tour takes place in the evening, visitors will also get to experience the house in a different light.
“You get to see this in candlelight, which people rarely get the opportunity to do,” says Marcell. “It will give you a real sense of life in 1820. The house is completely different in the dark by candlelight.”
The Davenport House was built in 1820, which makes it a particularly apt site for a history lesson about the time of the yellow fever.
“We always say the house was built as a symbol of optimism,” says Credle. “They built this great house, but it was in the midst of this terrible local tragedy.”